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Second Presbyterian Church Resurrects Sing-Along 'Messiah'

 Congregants at Second Presbyterian Church during last year's Christmas service.
Congregants at Second Presbyterian Church during last year's Christmas service.
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Second Presbyterian Church

SOUTH LOOP — The full force of Handel's "Messiah" hasn't chorused through the Second Presbyterian Church since 2005, and it's breaking Michael Shawgo's heart.

But after months of fundraising, promoting and negotiating, Shawgo is on track to bring it back in a concert at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Shawgo, who was the church's music director from 1990 to 2000, was reinstated this year after taking a 12-year break to restore a historic organ at First United Methodist Church in Oak Park.

In his absence, the annual sing-along performance of the scriptural concert piece, a long-held tradition for the church at 1936 S. Michigan Ave., fell by the wayside, a victim of dwindling funds from the Presbytery of Chicago and declining membership.

"For several years, the church has been in decline, in terms of attrition of members and sort of a lack of spiritual energy," said David Neff, Second Presbyterian's pastor. "In its heyday, the balconies were packed with singers. The church can hold approximately a thousand members, and every pew was filled, every seat taken up and people opened their wallets and pocketbooks to give. ... [There was] just a feeling of warmth and generosity for being blessed with this inspired music."

The church hasn't held the concert — which is oriented towards the community more than congregants, who view themselves as the hosts — since 2007, Shawgo says, and the two previous years it was performed on a significantly smaller scale.

"It was almost done with like a string quintet," Shawgo said. "Like, two violins, one cello, just a little chamber, a little tiny group."

That's a significant change from the "Messiah" concerts longtime church member Rowena Balogun, 66, remembers. When she joined the church in 1997, the annual "Messiah" performance was a booming symphony, with professional soloists and a full orchestra accompanying the chorus voiced by attendees.

Balogun has never sung in the chorus "because I've always been in the back getting ready for the reception we have afterward." She is in charge of bringing apple cider, which she simmers with cinnamon and cloves for hours before the event.

"But I listen to it, and I really enjoy it. It always sounds beautiful."

In the years the concert wasn't performed, Balogun said, "it was like a hole" in her holiday celebrations.

"Sing-along 'Messiah' is a Christmas tradition, and it's part of Christmas," she said. "So when it wasn't there, you know there's something missing."

But an affair of that magnitude is costly, and without funding from the Presbytery, Second Presbyterian launched a monthslong fundraising effort to try to make it happen. Every Sunday this month, they've asked congregants for donations, but "after several weeks now I think we've just about hit everybody in the church," Shawgo said. They're roughly $500 short of the sum they need to cover their costs, which were reduced by musicians and support staff who donated their time. They plan to try to raise the rest of the money at the concert Sunday.

Kim Diehnelt, Music Director of the South Loop Symphony, is directing the concert pro-bono, although she usually charges up to $3,000 to lead similar events. Charging the church didn't cross her mind.

"It wasn't as if I was asked to just do a gig," she said. "There's a little more involvement here. The people, sitting down and talking to them, seeing the space, it was more of a commitment of seeing something grow again, and that's compelling as an artist. You do want to see this happen. It's not like you just go out and have a gig. The building is exuberant, the people are full of energy, so I'm looking forward to this."

So is Balogun, she says, and dozens of others in the Second Presbyterian community, which Neff says has been steadily growing. The return of the "Messiah" sing-along is part of their revitalization, he said, "returning to our tradition to gain a connection to the community, and to bless people."

For Shawgo, the concert's return transcends religion, and community, and boils down the value of tradition.

"When you get used to doing something like that and then you don't do it, it's kind of depressing," Shawgo said. "Like, 'Oh, gee, remember the good old days when we had a big orchestra?' So we're just trying to get those days to come back I guess."